The A.B.C. Murders
by Agatha Christie
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Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Agatha Christie wrote some 80 mysteries,
which have sold a staggering four billion
copies—putting her alongside Shakespeare
and behind only the Bible in readership.  
But Christie could also
live a mystery of her
own—the experts will
forever speculate about
the story behind her
mysterious disappear-
ance in December
1926, spurring a mas-
sive manhunt until her
discovery, living under
an assumed name in
Yorkshire, eleven days later.  Explanations
run the gamut from amnesia to a publicity
stunt, or even a set-up to get her
philandering husband arrested on murder
charges.  Certainly art and artifice
overlapped in the life of this grand lady of
the detective genre.   She learned about
poisons by working in a pharmacy, and
about wounds of various sort as a nurse
during World War I.  And she could be as
unreliable a witness as any in her books—
one of her tall tales, told to a credulous
interviewer, was that she didn't know who
the culprit in her stories would be until she
started writing the final chapter.  On
another occasion she recommended washing
dishes as a good way to come up with an
idea for a book.  Not the sentimental type,
she killed off both of her star sleuths, Miss
Marple and Hercule Poirot, the latter
receiving the unprecedented honor of being
the only fictional character to receive an
obituary in
The New York Times (with the
headline "Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed
Belgian Detective").  A teetotaler and a non-
smoker, Christie would eventually gain great
respectability as a Dame Commander of the
Order of the British Empire—which made
her Dame Agatha Christie; but remember
that this same lady who averred that "very
few of us are what we seem."
ROGUES GALLERY:
AGATHA CHRISTIE

Further Clues:

The Official Agatha Christie Website

Agatha Christie: The BBC Interviews

All About Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Disappearance
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the postmodern mystery, the detective often
seems more interested in deconstructing documents
than solving crimes. So deeply has the linguistic turn
in academia permeated these books, that semiotics
trumps criminology time and again, and fingerprints
and bloodstains are rudely ignored in favor of
explication de texte.  

Fans of more traditional mysteries
may prefer to blame
Auster or Eco
for this inward turn, which risks
reducing murder most foul into
one more esoteric graduate seminar.
But an obsession with texts and
symbols has been part of the genre
from the very start.  Recall that
Edgar Allan Poe, often lauded as
the inventor of the detective story,
focused one of his most famous
tales on the pursuit of a purloined
letter—no bloody death to investi-
gate, merely a text to hunt down—and built his classic
tale "The Gold Bug" on the deciphering of an intricately
coded
discourse.  Arthur Conan Doyle followed in the
same steps with "The Adventure of the Dancing Men,"
in which Sherlock Holmes takes on the role of the
codebreaker, and a host of later mystery authors have
similarly built stories around the interpretation of
troubling documents.

Yet any account of the role of symbols and texts in the
detective genre must give a prominent place to Agatha
Christie's
The A.B.C. Murders.  Here not just the clues
but the very crime itself is driven by a linguistic game.   
The victims and the locations of the crime follow an
alphabetical sequence, with no apparent motivation
beyond a deadly insistence on what Saussure would call
"the arbitrary nature of the sign."

The first crime is announced in advance via a letter to
Ms. Christie’s most celebrated sleuth.     

Mr. Hercule Poirot—You fancy yourself, don’t you, at solving
mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British
police?  Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be.  
Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack.  Look out for
Andover on the 21st of the month.  

Yours, etc.,

A.B.C.

Needless to say, a murder takes place at Andover in the
early hours of the 21st, and the victim is named Alice
Ascher.  In time, another letter arrives anticipating the
next crime: the killing of Betty Barnard of Bexhill-on-
Sea.  And so on and so forth. If Poirot doesn’t solve this
mystery, the A.B.C. murderer may very well knock off
26 people in 26 different locations. ("You'll have him by
the heels long before that," remarks one of the
investigators; "interesting to know how he'd have dealt
with the letter X.")

The premise is a striking one, and Christie’s
unconventional serial killer could serve, without further
postmodern twists, as the centerpiece for a gripping
mystery.  But our author risks undermining the suspense
of her tale by introducing us to Mr. A.B.C. himself
almost at the outset of the novel and periodically
throughout the book’s duration.  With a jarring
dislocation from the first-person narrative by Captain
Hastings, Poirot’s Dr. Watson, Christie offers updates on
Alexander Bonaparte Cust as he travels to various crime
scenes where the alphabetical murders take place,
sometimes leaving behind incriminating evidence.  

This is a strange, disruptive technique, but Christie was
never afraid of adopting avant-garde approaches to the
detective genre.  She would constantly befuddle her
readers with unreliable narrators, criminals who escape
justice, a murder in which
all of the suspects were guilty,
a crime in which the culprit is one of the victims, and
other unexpected deviations from the accepted formulas
for such tales.  In works such as
The Murder of Roger
Ackroyd
, Murder in the Calais Coach and The A.B.C. Murders,
Christie turned the usually narrowly focused mystery
story into a playground for unconventional techniques
and rampant rule-breaking of the very genre constraints
that she had helped establish during the course of her
career.

In
The A.B.C. Murders, Christie even pokes fun at
herself.  Early on in the story, she includes a discussion
between Poirot and Hastings in which they laugh at the
predictable ingredients in the very books in which they
appear.  At moments such as these, Christie is not far
afield from Gilbert Sorrentino, who enlivened his
Mulligan Stew with a gripe session where characters
complain about the lousy novels they inhabit.  

"If you could order a crime as one orders dinner what
would you choose?"

"Robbery, forgery. I think not….It must be murder—red-
blooded murder—with trimmings, of course….Who
shall the victim be—man or woman? Man, I think. Some
bigwig.  American millionaire. Prime Minister.   
Newspaper proprietor.  Scene of the crime—well, what’s
wrong with the good old library?  Nothing like it for
atmosphere. As for the weapon—well, it might be
curiously twisted dagger—or some blunt instrument—a
carved stone idol…."

And Christie continues in this vein for another page,
listing likely suspects in this imaginary mystery,
suggesting false clues and providing, in her own words,
"a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories
that have ever been written."

There are a few sloppy moments here, as is inevitable in
an author who maintained such extraordinary
productivity over so many years.  At one point we are
told that our criminal is not just your usual killer, but a
"homicidal murderer"—as if there is any
other kind?—
and elsewhere we have implausible circumstances, such
as a man getting stabbed in a public place without
flinching or making a cry.  And the final denouement is
to plots what Rube Goldberg is to technology.    

But you don’t go to Agatha Christie seeking Proustian
prose or Balzac’s realism.  Her aim is to entice and
puzzle us, and she delivers on those counts, presenting
her readers with a story that is radically different from
the norm, and proving that an author who left behind
some eighty detective novels—roughly five million
words of whodunits—could always dig into her toolbox
and come up with something fresh and different, yet as
simple as A.B.C.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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www.tedgioia.com

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